Published on Monday, July 24, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Billion Dollar G-8 Meeting Fails To Act On Debt Relief For World's Poor
by Barrie McKenna
Okinawa, Japan - Eager to put a more human face on globalization, Group of Eight leaders tried to reach out to the world's less fortunate at their three-day summit in Okinawa, but in the end served up mostly vague promises.

The G8 leaders, while acknowledging their countries' "unprecedented" prosperity, shied away from some of the most costly and concrete schemes to help poorer countries.

The leaders of seven major industrialized nations plus Russia rejected, for example, a Canadian proposal to boost development aid by up to 10 per cent, turned down Japan's idea to set up a G8 fund to fight infectious diseases, and backed away from opening their markets to farm goods from developing countries within four years.

And over the objections of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, they said no to a new plan to accelerate $100-billion (U.S.) in debt relief for the poorest countries.

In their 15-page final communiqué released yesterday, the leaders did vow to help bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots of the digital age, promote primary schooling for all children by 2015, and dramatically cut the death toll from AIDS and other infectious diseases.

They plan to set up a Digital Opportunities Task Force, or DOT, to identify ways to encourage the spread of technology to the farthest reaches of the developing world.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien acknowledged he was disappointed the other leaders didn't endorse his proposal to boost overseas development aid by 5 to 10 per cent.

"But I'm happy that I made the proposition, because if there was not an agreement on a specific number, there was agreement that something has to be done, that the time has come to reinvest more money in that."

Mr. Chrétien acknowledged that increasing aid would have been more difficult for some G8 countries because they already spend a substantial amount on foreign aid. In the past five years, Canada and other leading countries have cut overseas aid by 20 per cent. Canada currently spends 0.26 per cent of its gross domestic product on foreign aid, down from the peak of 0.5 per cent in 1988.

This first summit of the 21st century, staged at a remote luxury beach resort on the southernmost Japanese island of Okinawa, did make history on several fronts.

At $1-billion, it was the costliest summit ever mounted, prompting several non-governmental organizations to point out the hypocrisy of spending so much at a meeting that was supposed to be devoted to the poor.

One British newspaper lampooned the summit as an expensive and futile "beanfeast." And development lobbyists said the money should have been spent on cancelling Third World debt.

But French President Jacques Chirac said journalists, not the leaders, are to blame for making summits such a big deal by coming in such large numbers. There were more than 8,000 journalists registered in Okinawa -- 7,000 of them Japanese.

The G8 includes Canada, the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Russia. The weekend gathering marked the summit debut of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the farewell for U.S. President Bill Clinton, who leaves office in January.

Mr. Putin -- who had his first one-on-one meeting yesterday with Mr. Chrétien since becoming President earlier this year -- was the undisputed star of the gathering, drawing praise from other leaders for his confident presentations.

The two leaders talked about Canada's possible diplomatic recognition of North Korea and Russia's staunch opposition to the controversial $60-billion (U.S.) ballistic missile-defence system of the United States

Mr. Chrétien, who described the former KGB spy as "eloquent and knowledgeable," invited Mr. Putin to make his first visit to Canada sometime soon.

But Mr. Chrétien did not endorse Mr. Putin's declaration that the Okinawa summit marked Russia's "total integration" into the G8. Russia first started coming to these meetings in 1997, but sits out of the sessions dealing with global financial issues as it is not a full member.

The G8's desire to talk about development issues is hardly accidental. The major industrialized countries want to restart the global free-trade talks, which collapsed in the wake of last year's violence-marred World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle -- partly because Third World countries felt alienated by the process. The G8 leaders promised to restart the trade talks by the end of this year "if possible." As Mr. Chirac noted, "We need to humanize globalization."

At last year's summit in Cologne, Germany, the G8 leaders agreed to cancel $100-billion (U.S.) worth of debt owed by 41 heavily indebted countries by the end of this year. But, virtually all of that debt remains outstanding.

Developed countries can't hope to sustain growth without bringing along the Third World, Japanese Prime Minister and summit host Yoshiro Mori told the closing news conference.

The British-based group Jubilee 2000 complained yesterday that while it's fine to tackle the world's digital divide, "the failure to tackle the debt divide has made the whole G8 summit a waste of time, money and lives."

The group, which wants donors to cancel all debts to the 41 poorest countries, burned a laptop computer in effigy on a beach near the summit media centre.

Copyright 2000 Globe Interactive